The Many Faces of America’s Financial Capability

Are you feeling less financial stress than a few years ago? If you are, you’re not alone. Fewer Americans find it difficult to cover their expenses and pay their bills, not to mention being more satisfied with their overall financial condition.

Then again, you might be among the millions in our country for whom making ends meet remains a daily struggle. If you are a woman, millennial, African-American, Hispanic or lacking a high school education, you are more likely to be in that second category.

These findings come from the National Financial Capability Study (NFCS), released this month by the FINRA Investor Education Foundation (FINRA Foundation). As the report notes, “financial capability is a multi-dimensional concept that encompasses a combination of knowledge, resources, access and habits.”

In short, financial capability has many faces.

The study measures four key components of financial capability: making ends meet, planning ahead, managing financial products, and financial knowledge and decision making. Drawing on a data set comprising responses from more than 27,000 U.S. adults, the NFCS is one of the largest and most comprehensive financial capability studies in the country.

Key Findings

Here are 5 noteworthy findings from the study:

1. More than one in five Americans (21 percent) have unpaid medical debt, and women are more likely than men to put off medical services due to cost, such as seeing a doctor, buying needed prescriptions or undergoing a medical procedure.

2. The percentage of Americans who say they have set aside three months worth of living expenses in case of an emergency is up to 46, from 40 in 2012, a significant overall improvement. But nearly half of respondents with a high school education or less could not come up with $2,000 in 30 days in the event of an emergency (45 percent) compared to only 18 percent for respondents with a college degree.

3. Twenty-nine percent of 18- to 34-year-olds with a mortgage have been late with a mortgage payment, compared with 7 percent for the 55+ age group.

4. Hispanics and African-Americans are much more likely to use high-cost forms of borrowing like pawn shops and payday loans compared to whites—39 percent for African-Americans, 34 percent for Hispanics and 21 percent for whites.

5. Only 37 percent of respondents are considered to have high financial literacy, meaning they could answer four or more questions on a five-question financial literacy quiz—down from 39 percent in 2012 and 42 percent in 2009.

While the financial circumstances of Americans overall have improved over the last several years—driven in large part by an improving economy and job market—certain groups are struggling. "This research underscores the critical need for innovative strategies to equip consumers with the tools and education required to effectively manage their financial lives," said FINRA Foundation Chairman Ketchum.

The survey’s full data set, methodology and related questionnaire are available at USFinancialCapability.org.

State-by-state results are available for all 50 states and the District of Columbia for the 2015, 2012 and 2009 survey years.

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